Sunday, December 9, 2007

Number 21: Chester A. Arthur

Years in office: 1881-1885
Pre-service occupations: lawyer, principal, chief engineer and quartermaster general for the state of New York, collector of the New York Customhouse, vice president
Key events during his administration: Standard Oil founded (1882), Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Pendleton Civil Service Act (1883). Brooklyn Bridge opens (1883), International Meridian Conference (1884)

Presidential rating: Mildly successful and very popular


Who thinks of Chester A. Arthur?

The name of the man who became president after James A. Garfield’s 80-day ordeal does not come readily to mind when thinking of the title “president of the United States.” In fact, when I hear Arthur’s name, I usually think of a silly episode of The Simpsons: The children of Springfield Elementary put on a play depicting the presidents. Millhouse, as Lincoln, is giving the Gettysburg address. Suddenly he cries “John Wilkes Booth!” and runs away from Bart—dressed as The Terminator—who runs after him firing a pop gun and saying “You’re next, Chester A. Arthur!”

Outside of that silly pop culture reference—and the fact that his status as the 21st president is a crucial plot element in the third Die Hard movie—Arthur remains quietly ensconced in the 19th century.

He was a curious man who was fastidious, polite to a fault and absolutely loved the good life. He was struck with personal tragedy (it often seems like the presidents have more than their share, doesn’t it?) and thrust unexpectedly into the White House—and attacked viciously by enemies who believed he had something to do with it.

Having known next to nothing about “Chet” Arthur, I learned that John Kennedy was not the only president who hid a debilitating illness. Also, Arthur was a man who was born of machine politics but became its unexpected foe when he became president. Arthur the political lackey and Arthur the accidental president appeared to be two different men—almost the difference between a reckless teenager and a sober, responsible adult.

He wasn’t the most energetic president. “Workaholic” and “Chester A. Arthur” were mutually exclusive. It’s not that he was lazy; rather, he savored his leisure time and the good life. Business had its proper place. Biographers note that no pressing cause fueled his passions; no vision for America filled his mind with ideas. It’s probably safe to say that Arthur really didn’t want to be president--but as long as he was there, he was going to do a good, fair and honorable job.

Chester A. Arthur was no mere caretaker, but a competent man who rose to the occasion, thrilled society wags with his extravagance, conducted himself honorably and left the stage—ushered out quickly by the party that no longer had a use for him. Yet he presided over a vital shift in American government that forever changed the relationship between the governors and the governed: a shift that we hotly debate to this day.

Rise of a Stalwart
His birth is a minor mystery: exactly where and when Chester A. Arthur was born to his Irish immigrant parents is something of a question mark. Some speculation abounds that he came from Canada, but Arthur never said yea or nay; so, as far as history is concerned, the gentleman president hailed from Vermont in either 1829 or 1830.

Arthur joined the Psi Upsilon fraternity, studied law and became an educator in Vermont. When he moved to New York City to practice law, he vocally opposed slavery and supported equal rights for blacks in transportation. Arthur joined the new Republican Party in the 1850s.

He married Ellen Lewis Herndon in 1859. His beloved “Nell” never quite got used to her husband’s long absences as a political operative, but she loved him dearly. Rumors of affairs sometimes dogged the Arthurs, but whether they were true or not never mattered. Their love for each other remained strong. Nell died of a pneumonia a year before Arthur became vice president. He never remarried.

During the Civil War, New York’s Governor Morgan appointed Chet Arthur as the state’s chief engineer and then quartermaster general (with the rank of brigadier general). He served from 1861-1863 and was widely praised for his service in organizing and supplying New York’s volunteer soldiers for the Union war effort. When the state’s government shifted in the 1862 elections, Arthur lost his position and returned to civilian life, where he practiced law for the remainder of the war.

Arthur soon came under the political patronage of the powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. As a Radical Republican who took a harsh attitude toward the defeated South, Conkling was one of the most powerful men in the country. He also became an ally of Ulysses S. Grant, helping the wildly popular general secure the White House in 1868. Arthur, meanwhile, became quite active in state politics and stayed close to Conkling.

What made Arthur rise to prominence? Biographer Karabell postulates that nothing about Arthur made him presidential material; rather, his acceptable nature made him palatable as vice president. But president? Describing a situation that is equally apropos today, Karabell writes:

“Often, It isn’t the ones who are best suited who rise to prominence but the ones who make the fewest enemies. Arthur never attracted the passionate allegiance that Blaine or Conkling did, but he avoided the passionate animosity they engendered. Much like Garfield, Arthur rose in 1880 because he was still standing. He was never the tallest reed, so he was rarely knocked down. Though he was a skilled organizer a more-than-competent politico, he lacked the x factor usually associated with leadership and greatness. As it turned out, the qualities he did possess allowed him to rise farther than many others who were more intelligent, dynamic and driven. When he ascended to the highest office in the country, he was able to use those qualities to govern more successfully than many had expected.” (p.68)

In 1871, Grant, acting on Conkling’s advice, appointed Chet Arthur to the most lucrative post in the nation: collector of the New York Customhouse.

An uncorrupted man in a corrupted system
As the collector, Arthur drew a salary of $12,000, which itself was a princely sum compared to the pittance most of the rest of men in the nation earned. But the above-the-board “spoils” from the collector raised his income to $50,000. (Think of it this way: the difference between Arthur’s wealth and the average man’s income is roughly akin to that between a typical Hollywood star and an average middle class American today.) The income level didn’t survive for too long, because an act of Congress reduced personal rewards for customs officials.

However, Arthur did not indulge in the underhanded nature of his position. There is no evidence whatsoever that he engaged in kickbacks, skimming, bribes, etc., that ports collectors were openly known for. In fact, Arthur was praised for his honesty, and when the Hayes administration went after the political patronage system, the office of the New York collector, and not Arthur himself was the target. Arthur was clean. Biographer Doenecke suggests that Arthur sometimes encouraged illegal activity, which may or may not be true, but he certainly tolerated it.

Arthur became (to use the modern phrase) a political football when Hayes suspended him in 1878. Senator Conkling, the Stalwart machine and friendly newspapers defended Arthur, for his term had brought efficiency to the customhouse and he himself was not corrupt. But Arthur became the sacrificial lamb to President Hayes’ lukewarm reform efforts (which in the end please no one and wound up hurting the party). Arthur’s suspension became permanent and Hayes-friendly people took over the customhouse in 1879.

Arthur returned to practicing law. He also led the New York Republican Party at Conkling’s behest, which continued to involve him heavily in assessments. Practically the entire federal bureaucracy up until Arthur’s term was made up of political appointees. Party members, bosses, leaders, congressmen, senators, governors and presidents accepted the “spoils system” (so-named by an ally of Andrew Jackson) as legitimate, necessary and both privately and publicly lucrative. None believed it corrupt—none except a small but vocal minority both in and out of government, that is.

The key component of the system were the “assessments,” which were contributions that political appointees were expected to give to the party of the lawmaker or administration official that secured the position.

Reformers chafed the most at this system; baby steps were taken in Grant’s term toward creating a real civil service, but it wouldn’t happen until the public demanded that it happen. Chet Arthur, who had benefited so handsomely from the spoils system, would find himself a strange, half-hearted cheerleader of reform.

Arthur and Conkling, Arthur and Garfield: Unhappy pairings
Chet Arthur’s surprise pairing with James Garfield at the 1880 convention did not please the Stalwarts, especially Roscoe Conkling. When they realized that Grant would not get the nomination for a third term—and took solace in the fact that James G. Blaine wouldn’t get the nod either—they nevertheless didn’t like the fact that Garfield was the party’s man.

Garfield, in what seemed to be a good bit of political peacemaking, offered the VP slot to Arthur. After all, the Republicans would have a difficult time winning without New York. Biographer relates the only known record of the confrontation between party boss and lieutenant—which may be apocryphal, he notes—when the latter informed his patron that the offer had been made:

Conkling: “Well, sir, you should drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge.”

Arthur: “The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I have ever dreamed of obtaining. A barren nomination would be a great honor. In a calmer moment you will look at this differently.”

Conkling: “If you wish for my favor and my respect you will contemptuously decline it.”

Arthur: “Senator Conkling, I shall accept the nomination and I shall carry with me a majority of the delegates.” (Karabell, 41-42)

Things were never the same between the two: the student had surpassed the teacher, and the teacher didn’t like it one bit.

Of course, Garfield and Arthur won the 1880 election (but just barely). Their relationship was hardly cordial, though, and was even more strained than Arthur’s was with the senator. On election night Arthur made a huge loose-tongue blunder that, in the internet/YouTube age, would have destroyed the administration before it even started. At a victory celebration at Delmonico’s in New York City, where Arthur loved to do political business, Arthur and several political operatives talked about how they had won Indiana—but Arthur, probably drunk, hinted strongly that “secret” things happened in Indiana that weren’t exactly on the level. A reporter recorded the words at the private party, and the resulting story brought more shame on the men from Indiana, than Arthur, who was very well liked. Nevertheless, the incident was remembered when Arthur became president.

After the inauguration, Arthur and Garfield realized that they opposed each other on several issues. Most notably, when the president took on Conkling’s Stalwart machine over federal appointments, the president knocked the boss hard. Dismayed, Arthur stood with “Lord” Conkling and went so far as to call Garfield a liar. (See last entry for full details.) The president banished his vice president from the White House, and the two never worked together. “Hate” is actually not too strong of a word to describe their mutual feelings.

Arthur was not even permitted to be close to Garfield during the president’s months-long ordeal, as the doctors thought the sight of him would upset Garfield.

“Chet Arthur is now the president?”
The attempted assassination of Garfield in July 1881 created a multi-faceted crisis, in addition to the obvious. Ugly rumors had surfaced the same day Guiteau’s bullets struck Garfield that Arthur, Conkling and other Stalwarts had plotted to murder the president—given fuel by no less than Guiteau himself, who shouted that “Arthur is now president” after shooting Garfield” and leaving a disturbed letter claiming that only the Stalwarts could save the party and the nation.

When Garfield died thanks to doctor incompetence, Arthur took over an office he really never wanted. During his first weeks in office, public confidence was quite low:

“Arthur’s lack of national experience did little to establish public confidence; the circumstances of his vice presidential nomination, the Delmonico’s speech, the deliberate undercutting of President Garfield, and the continual closeness of the New York Stalwarts offered even less. In addition, he had inherited a divided and factionalized party, with Blaine, [John] Sherman and other leading Republicans all hoping to receive the presidential nomination in 1884.” (Doenecke, p.75)
However, while some people may have moaned to God that “Chet Arthur is now president?!” the nation actually had someone in the White House who did his best to cast off partisan ties and govern as an above-the-fray president—no matter what he felt about actually holding down the job. He didn’t want to be there, but while he was there, he would do that job well.

The new president gets started
While setting out to get a new cabinet, Arthur also sent his first message to Congress. Naturally, the message spent some time on the late president.

Arthur also discussed civil service reform in some of the strongest terms yet uttered in Washington, though Arthur’s words would become the zenith of his efforts. He also made several proposals, none of which came to fruition at that time because Congress was occupied with other matters; yet they merit a brief mention. His suggestions included the line-item veto, building a home for the Library of Congress, a smoother process for presidential succession, the regulation of interstate commerce (Arthur charged railroads of conspiring on prices and discriminating on rates), and reforming the counting of electoral votes to prevent another Hayes-Tilden mess.

Even though Congress largely ignored his ideas, the hordes off office-seekers didn’t ignore him. Old friends and strangers descended upon the White House looking for jobs. They called him “Chet” and assumed a familiarity that the easy going Arthur found offensive.

He soon dismissed the cabinet and got a new one. No realistically expected a Stalwart to keep James G. Blaine on as secretary of state. Blaine had served well, making movements toward furthering U.S. ambitions in the longed-for dream of a passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. He would serve at that post again during the next Republican administration.

Of course, Arthur’s New York friends were figuratively licking their chops at having one of their own as president. Since they couldn’t have Grant in the White House again, Arthur would have to do. But Arthur the president was not the same man as Arthur the cog in the political machine:

“For someone so identified with partisan politics, Arthur himself was remarkably equitable and nonpartisan. He had a strong sense of fair play, and he did not have an exaggerated sense of self. He respected that other people of other parties and factions held strong beliefs and desires, and in the interests of order and national unity he intended to construct an inclusive administration. He seems to have come to come to that conclusion automatically, and it dictated his response to Conkling and the Stalwarts when they turned to him in October and expected an open door and a warm embrace.

“It had not yet dawned on Conkling that his day had passed.” (Karabell, p.68-69)
The fashionable gentleman president
The nation already knew a little bit about Chester A. Arthur before he became president: they knew he was wealthy and lived extravagantly. When he assumed the presidency, the era’s version of the celebrity media couldn’t get enough of the widower president’s lifestyle. Arthur loved to live well. His wealth let him do so, both materially and gastronomically. Biographer Karabell describes Arthur as “fashion forward”—always trendy but within acceptable exquisite tastes. Observers saw Arthur as always fastidiously dressed, but never outlandishly so. His carriage was the most handsomely appointed one in the capitol. And the White House witnessed a refurbishing it had never before seen. Arthur stripped the executive mansion of old furniture, heavy curtains, old gifts and more.

Historians regret the house cleaning, because many precious items were lost—save for such things as presidential portraits—but the White House had never looked better. Arthur hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the executive mansion, and this he did with style. Tiffany, of course, would earn great fame designing lamps.

The newspapers loved Arthur’s style, and the bachelor president was watched closely whenever he traveled in his carriage. Karabell claims that Arthur, with all of his exquisite tastes, “was the closest thing to Jacqueline Kennedy that Washington would see until Jacqueline Kennedy.” (p. 79)

Chet Arthur also loved food. While dining had long been part of his political life, he simply liked to eat fine food, and his wealth let him do so. He wasn’t exactly fat—but he wasn’t slender, either. His love of food, though, led to his ill health. The impeccably mannered president kept a closely guarded secret throughout his term: he was quite ill—another Kennedy connection, if you will—and his health faded rapidly during his term. The president had contracted Bright’s disease, a term no longer used to describe a form of kidney disease. Arthur would die from complications of this disease in 1886. (The poet Emily Dickenson died that same year from the same disease; Bright’s disease also claimed the first wives of fellow presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the wife of Warren G. Harding.)

Arthur successfully kept the debilitating illness from journalists and even from many of his staff, showing no signs of being sick at public events such as the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York in 1883.

A Stalwart no more, and the final step to civil service reform
As mentioned, President Arthur made early moves that made him appear favorable to the reformists: he urged civil service reform and he refused to dole out patronage positions like candy to the New York machine.

However, Arthur was not a great champion of reform. Despite the strong stance in his 1881 message to Congress, he took no initial strong actions other than keeping his former Stalwart allies at bay with appointments. He did use his patronage powers to cement political alliances—such as with Virginia’s William Mahone—but “kept aloof,” to use Karabell’s phrase, from Conkling, Grant and other Stalwarts who peppered him with suggestions and expectations of appointments. Arthur used his head and set his own course on appointing positions rather than following the expected course of “to the victor go the spoils,” the time-honored tradition since Andrew Jackson. Conkling became so dismayed at his onetime protégé that he remarked that the dearth of offices being given to Stalwarts made the Hayes administration “respectable, if not heroic,” in comparison.” (Doeneke, p.76)

It may not have been smart politics, but it was presidential leadership.

To the disappointment of reformers, nothing really got done on civil service reform during 1882. Arthur took tepid steps, but nothing truly groundbreaking. Elites such as Henry Adams believed that Arthur represented more of the same, and in truth, he did. Arthur urged reform, be he wasn’t going to lead the charge. Congress would need to do that itself. Two earthshaking events—one of them purely political—finally pushed the government into reform.

The first had, of course, already happened: Garfield’s death. He was shot by a lunatic who history mislabels a “disgruntled office-seeker.” The second event was the devastating Republican political losses in the 1882 elections. To understand the magnitude of Republican losses, think of the Democratic losses in 1994. Although the Republicans held on to a slim majority in the Senate, their numbers had all but reversed in the House. State elections were bad all over, especially New York, where Democrat candidate Grover Cleveland overwhelmed an Arthur ally, wresting the governor’s office away from the Republicans in a humiliating defeat for boss politics.

Why was there a “Democrat cyclone,” as one newspaper termed it? Biographer Doeneke explains that boss politics was falling apart, the Democrats were unusually organized, corruption taints hurt them (they always hurt the party in power far more than the party out of power) and the public wanted the reform done in the wake of the shocking shooting of Garfield (p.99). Republicans had definitely underestimated public desire for reforming civil service, and even though both parties used the spoils system to great effect, the Republicans took a hit for lack of action.

The lame-duck Congress realized that it could secure real civil service reform in 1883 before the new Congress took over. This would led Republicans take credit for the reform—and also give some tenure protection to Republican officeholders. Politically, it was definitely cynical. But nevertheless, Congress dusted off the bill that Democrat George Pendleton had previously proposed, and went to work.

Arthur’s role was more of a sideliner than a headliner: He approved the act in January 1883, but he wasn’t its driving force. In fact, had he unwisely vetoed the bill—if he had suddenly decided to cling to bossism, for example—his veto would have easily been overturned, and Arthur would have lost a lot of ground. But he signed it, if not cheerfully, then at least prudently.

The 1883 Pendleton Act was quite limited in scope: it only covered 11 percent of federal employees (14,000 out of 131,600 in 1883). And it didn’t even touch the postal service (an area where Arthur suffered some embarrassment, when the investigations into the Star Route frauds produced not convictions, but acquittals). However, the act did establish a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, eliminated assessments against office holders and made certain offices competitive—not political giveaways.

Yet even this limited scope marked a tremendous change in the basic function of government. No longer would the federal government be subject to mere political whims—“to the victor go the spoils,” as an ally of Andrew Jackson stated shortly after Old Hickory’s victory in 1828. Starting in 1883, the federal government would take a new direction:

“For those who bemoan the growth of government in our day, the Pendleton Act might be seen as a step down the road to perdition. After all, it facilitated the vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy. Even those who don’t like government, however, can probably appreciate that insofar as some government is a necessary evil, it’s better for society that it be administered in a professional manner.” (Karabell, p.110)

Protectionism in the Gilded Age I
Another political battle of Arthur’s term came over the tariff (tax on goods at the time of importation). Tariffs were fought over during the 1800s like tax rates are fought over today. Grossly simplifying, businesses and manufacturers often favored a high (protection) tariff while agrarian and other rural communities generally favored a lower tariff, allowing the importation of goods at a cheaper price. Doenecke explains that supporters of high tariffs believed that their way kept American wages high and in turn benefited farmers, who could find customers among higher-wage earners. Supporters of the low tariff believed that their way opened the doors to lower prices while granting Americans access to more markets worldwide.

The reform-minded public demanded action on the tariff, and President Arthur agreed. Arthur, though urging caution, believed having a repeated annual federal budget surplus from revenue tariffs was an embarrassment and needed to be fixed. (Wildly different from today’s politics, wouldn’t you agree?) Arthur established a commission—dominated by protectionists—who returned a surprising endorsement for a substantial reduction of tariffs.

After the 1882 elections, the lame-duck Republican-led Congress rammed a bill through Congress to address tariff reform, hoping to do the same thing with tariff reform that they did with civil service. Arthur signed the bill without comment at the last hour of the lame-duck Congress’ session. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near what Arthur had wanted and a far cry from what his commission had recommended. High tariffs were reduced by a mere 1.47 percent average. Biographer Doenecke writes that:

“The legislative monstrosity was so illogical that the bill soon became known as the Mongrel Tariff. …(T)he measure throughout possessed
more dangling modifiers and convoluted jargon than an undergraduate term paper. The bill backfired, winning few supporters the GOP.”
Arthur wasn’t blamed, because he took the issue seriously and so did his commission. The power-hungry and politically minded Congress, however, blew it. The GOP would pay for it in the next presidential election, as farmers and westerners turned toward the Democrats for relief.

Protectionism in the Gilded Age II
Money and foreign goods weren’t the only protectionist inclinations that concerned Congress during Arthur’s term. Congress passed—and Arthur approved—laws excluding “paupers” (extremely poor people), criminals and the mentally insane from immigrating to America.

During President Hayes’ term, Congress attempted to pass a law restricting Chinese immigration. Hayes vetoed the bill for practical reasons: the bill violated a prior treaty with the Chinese. Now Arthur faced a similar situation. Anti-Chinese sentiment continued to grow in the west, especially as Chinese laborers turned from constructing railroads to other pursuits. Now, there was nothing unusual per-say in the anti-Chinese sentiment in that they were the latest immigrant wave to feel the wrath of the “old-timers,” much the way the Irish and Dutch had been laid into as lazy, drunk Catholics in the 1840s. Competition for low-paying jobs—becoming a familiar battle between old and new immigrant waves—coupled with unfamiliarity with Chinese ways, and the fact that most of the Chinese were men—there were very few women and children—fueled suspicions and tainted the mess with racism.

West coast legislators again crafted a bill against Chinese immigration, this time much tougher than the previous attempted bill. The Chinese Exclusion Act was intended to forbid any immigration from China for 20 years and placed many restrictions on those already in the states. President Arthur, to his great credit, vetoed the bill, using the same reasons as Hayes: it was a bad faith gesture to the Chinese government.

Congress, however, overcame Arthur’s veto by passing a softer version of the bill (10 years, not 20), but not much less punitive than its predecessor. Here, though, Arthur faltered—and to his great detriment signed the bill into law in May 1882. Karabell explains that he knew he didn’t have the votes to sustain a veto and public sentiment was running against the Chinese.

“Another president might have vetoed the bill again and forced Congress to overturn him. Clearly, Arthur’s sympathies lay in that direction. He had been raised by a father with strong religious convictions against slavery, and he himself ad been squarely in the antislavery camp as a young adult in the 1850s. In that sense, he was a true Republican in the mold of Lincoln and the founders of the party. At the same time, his political career was not built on the passion of his ideals; it had been based on his loyalty, diligence and effectiveness as an operator. He was never a demagogue, and one reason why he had made so few enemies was that he was rarely petty venal or hateful. The Chinese exclusion bill was all three, but Arthur would not fight a fight he knew he would lose. Rather than be a martyr to principle, he submitted to the will of the political majority and pragmatically signed the ten-year exclusion act.” (Karabell, p.85-86)
In other words, Chester A. Arthur was not one to find hills to die on.

The pork barrel veto
While President Arthur tepidly let the Chinese exclusion act go through, he exercised his veto authority prominently on a piece of legislation properly derided then as “pork barrel.” The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1882 was a $19 million boondoggle specifically designed as a sop for congressmen and senators whose districts would be affected by river and port improvements—with money taken from the federal surplus.

Although some of the improvements could be justified, President Arthur vetoed the bill. Doeneke explains:

“Arthur was not opposed to internal improvements in general or to southern improvements in particular. In April, he had endorsed a report of the Mississippi River Commission that called for improvements on the whole length of the river. But in his veto message to Congress, he claimed that the rivers and harbors grants would only benefit ‘particular localities.’ Such parochial appropriations did not advance the common defense, interstate commerce or the general welfare and hence went ‘beyond the powers given by the Constitution to Congress and the President.’ In addition, they set a bad precedent: further demands could only lead to ‘extravagant expenditure of public money,’ thereby demoralizing the nation.” (p.81)
Congress quickly overturned his veto, but Arthur enjoyed increased public approval for his actions.

The “Father of the Steel Navy,” Gulf movements and the issue of time
The president moved to modernize the navy, most of which was filled with hulks left over from the war. The navy that McKinley used to win the Spanish-American War had its beginnings in Arthur’s term. He ordered the construction on new steel-clad steamers, although only three cruisers were built. But the secretary of the Navy, William Chandler, established the Naval War College in Rhode Island and the office of Naval Intelligence. It was a start.

Meanwhile, President Arthur’s choice to replace James G. Blaine at State, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, seemed like a decent enough choice. A longtime Republican with a strong interest in foreign affairs—he had chaired the Senate’s committee on foreign relations and had even been appointed to the ministry to Great Britain by U.S. Grant (declined)—Frelinghuysen would serve Arthur ably if not outstandingly.

He wasn’t as aggressive as Blaine, but through him Arthur pursued familiar movements in Nicaragua to secure land for the future construction of a canal. The Senate refused to ratify a treaty with Nicaragua because it went against a prior treaty with England. Frelinghuysen also sought reciprocal trade agreements with Spain, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but protectionists prevented those agreements from becoming law.

For the most part, Arthur’s foreign policy was a bust, except for one major event. In 1884, President Arthur organized the International Meridian Conference in Washington to determine the world’s prime meridian—in other words, decide what time was the standard time on which all clocks would be set, rather than continue to have a bunch of competing meridians wafting about. The conference established that the time in Greenwich, England, would be the meridian from then on. (It did not establish time zones, however.)

The 1884 election marked the first time since 1857 that the Democrats regained the White House, and the man who did it—Grover Cleveland—would be the only Democrat to hold the office until Woodrow Wilson more than a decade after Cleveland’s second term ended. By 1884, the Republican Party had recovered from the shellacking of 1882. The party got some credit for the Pendleton Act but was stung by the public over the party’s protectionism.

At that moment, grassroots public sentiment favored the Democrats, and for once, the Democrats coalesced around an excellent, if not exciting candidate. Cleveland appealed to enough people in enough sections of the country that he was an acceptable candidate.

The Republicans were in trouble not because of Arthur, but because the party no longer had a “big name” to gather around. Grant was out of the picture. (Grant would be dead the following year, and in his final gesture to bossism, Arthur reversed his prior stance and approved a measure restoring the ailing Grant to rank and giving him a handsome pension for which the hero of the Union lived on during his final months.) Conkling was also persona non gratis, so that left Arthur himself, James G. Blaine, John Sherman and few other wannabes as possible contenders.

But President Arthur had no real intention of standing for election in his own right, although he did figuratively throw his hat in the ring. Though still a closely guarded secret, his health was increasingly fragile. The president did not aggressively seek the nomination, though he was popular enough to go into the convention with enough support right behind James G. Blaine. Other men considered for the nomination included John Sherman’s brother, William T., who famously remarked “If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not serve.” President Arthur could almost say as much, considering his health.

However, Blaine quickly won the nomination, much to the dismay of many in the party. He was too polarizing and, more liberal members were afraid, unappealing to larger swaths of the country. They were right. Blaine lost the close election to Cleveland.

The popular Arthur left the White House in good spirits in March 1885 for New York City. He died the following year and was buried next to his wife.

Final Assessment

Chester A. Arthur proved to be one of the better presidents we’ve ever had. A man who never wanted the job, he turned his back on the mechanisms—and the people—that brought him prominence and attempted to govern ably, honestly, skillfully and thoughtfully.

Arthur wasn’t always a leader. Many of the major issues of the day were handled with his support and sometimes reluctant approval, but he wasn’t the one out in front and leading the charge. Civil service reform occurred as much from Republican electoral disaster as it did from Garfield’s death. Sometimes, though, Arthur did stand athwart Congress, such as when he vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Act. A wealthy man who loved the good life, he nevertheless understood the tugs and pulls of the American economy, and his commission’s proposed reform’s of the tariff system were much better than what Congress ultimately enacted.

He had a number of ideas he proposed to Congress, but when Congress ignored them, he didn’t follow through. His foreign policy went nowhere, but his term came at a time of peace with the world.

Biographer Karabell writes that Arthur was a different president than Tyler and Johnson, who practically wrecked their parties after assuming the presidency. Arthur, however, was a pleasant surprise:

“Arthur had become president with perilously low expectations, which he then exceeded. In essence, most people concluded that the Arthur administration hadn’t been half bad. Considering that they had thought it would be all bad, Arthur was widely acclaimed for having done a respectable job.” (p.137)
In the end, Chester A. Arthur was a man thrust unexpectedly into the presidency who, in the modern vernacular, rose to the occasion and functioned well. His decisions weren’t always the best, and he often went along more than he led, such as when he ultimately signed the wretched Chinese Exclusion Act. But overall, he succeeded in serving the nation well.

Final assessment: Mildly successful and very popular


Both of my primary resources for this report were quite useful: The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (University of Kansas American Presidency Series) by Justus D. Doenecke (1981), and Chester A. Arthur by Zachary Karabell (2004, The American Presidents series). Both draw upon the definitive volume of Arthur’s entire life, Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas C. Reeves (1975).


All illustrations are in the public domain and taken from the Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division unless otherwise noted.

1 President Chester A. Arthur was photographed by C.M. Bell in 1882.

2 Ellen Herndon Arthur was photographed sometime between 1857 and 1870.

3 An Oct. 19, 1881, Puck cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper shows President Hayes kicking Chester A. Arthur out of the New York Customs House.

4 “Our nation’s choice—Gen. James Abram Garfield, Republican candidate for President, Gen. Chester A. Arthur, Republican Candidate for Vice-President” was an 1880 campaign poster complete with patriotic images and an American eagle.

5 Justice John R. Brady, Justice of New York State Supreme Court, administers the oath of office to Vice President Arthur in a private ceremony in Arthur's residence at 123 Lexington Ave. in New York City, as depicted in the Oct. 8, 1881, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated.

6 “On the threshold of office—what have we to expect of him?” Joseph Keppler created this cartoon for the Sept. 28, 1881, issue of Puck. Seven men (presumably party leaders) behold Chester Arthur; on the wall are portraits of the previous men to succeed a dead president, Andrew Johnson, Millard Fillmore and John Tyler.

7 “A presidential conjuror—What Mr. Arthur must be to satisfy all the politicians” is the caption of this Joseph Keppler cartoon for the Oct. 12, 1881, issue of Puck. The new President Arthur takes on the role of a stage musician and throws out titles of political offices, “soft soap,” “promises,” etc., to a crowd of men.

8 President Chester Arthur rides in his handsome in horse-drawn carriage in 1884, as depicted in the Sept. 6, 1884, Harper’s Weekly.

9 Senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Stalwarts group of the Republican Party, playing “The great presidential puzzle” game in this lithograph published in 1880 by Mayer, Merkel & Ottmann of New York City. Conkling overplayed his hand with both Garfield and Arthur. As president, Arthur would turn his back on the Conkling machine, and Conkling would never again play the kingmaker.

10 A Puck cartoon from June 28, 1882, showing Chester Arthur, dressed as a Roman standing next to “Republican scales” and holding the “patronage” sword with Mitchell “independent reps.” on one end of the scales and James Donald Cameron “bossism” on the other end of scales. The cartoon is more hopeful than accurate, because although Arthur was deft over patronage issues, his stance against “bossism,” and hence for civil service reform, only went so far.

11 Arthur is depicted as a vice presidential candidate.

12 President Arthur and party cross the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge in 1883.

13 President Chester A. Arthur is depicted in a full-length photo.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Number 20: James Garfield

Year in office: 1881
Pre-service occupations: general, lawyer, educator, state senator, U.S. representative, U.S. senator
Key events during his administration: Appointments showdown, beginning of Star Route fraud investigation, his assassination

Presidential rating: no rating but popular


He’s a great “what if.”

Like the other president who died so shortly into his term, James Garfield forever leaves us pondering the course of the nation had he lived. Would Garfield be remembered as another Lincoln or would the name still be associated with a fat, orange cat?

As with William Henry Harrison, though, James Garfield’s meteoric rise to power and shocking death merits examination. He was a popular man, a brilliant orator, a skillful politician, a friend to many and an enemy to few.

Of course, he’s remembered primarily—or only—because of his assassination, as his time in office was short. But during the run up to his abbreviated presidency, Garfield eared his reputation as one of the brightest political stars of the era. General, congressman and would-be reformer, Garfield raced through the post-war political scene like a meteor—and burned out almost as quickly when his life ended in 1881. The “young man in a hurry” is, like all the presidents, worth examining in full.

An educated and loquacious man
James Garfield came of age in an extremely poor area of Ohio known as the Western Reserve. After a brief seafaring adventure—on the canals of the east, not the Great Lakes or the oceans—the intensely curious and highly intelligent Garfield enrolled in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. A simple and poor college, the Institute fired Garfield’s mind. He developed disciplined study habits, worked on speaking skills and started a daily diary that remained with him until his death.

Garfield went east for a degree, entering Williams College in northwest Massachusetts in 1854. There he came under the tutelage of one of the 19th century’s most noted educator’s Mark Hopkins. At Williams, Garfield’s speaking skills became legendary, and his salutatorian on commencement day in 1856 awed the assembled audience, including Hopkins, who was as proud of Garfield as if James were his own son.

His two years at Williams also awoke Garfield’s political interests; he joined the abolitionist movement and the Republican Party. He had also built up excellent skills in working with people whose views he didn’t necessarily support—a highly valuable skill for a politician. He returned to the Institute as a teacher, but soon entered Ohio politics and a Republican Party supporter. He finally won an office in his own right in 1859, to the Ohio senate. There, both his speaking and organizational skills made him an asset to the state.

Meanwhile, Garfield courted and wed Lucretia Rudolf, an old classmate from the Institute, in 1858. Their marriage wasn’t always an easy one, but they raised five children together. He called her “Crete.” He also read law and was admitted to the Ohio bar.

At first, Garfield sought compromise. In the Ohio senate, he arranged a banquet in honor of the Kentucky and Tennessee legislatures to demonstrate their common bonds. The effort was well received and highly praised. But after Fort Sumter, Garfield tossed aside compromise and fought for victory.

As a state senator, Garfield urged the raising of regiments for the Union cause. Friends insisted that his stature—his political stature—merited him a generalship, so Garfield sought a commission. He became the colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteers—a natural occurrence, in keeping with the spirit of the times that the man who raised the regiment usually led it.

His actions in western Kentucky during early 1862 were exaggerated by Union media eager for positive news and by Garfield himself. True, he had chased the Rebels from the area, but the case was, to put it kindly, overstated with exuberance. Still, Garfield lobbied for and gained promotion to brigadier.

He was later assigned to General Don Carlos Buell’s army during the Shiloh and Corinth campaigns, but ill health sent him home in the autumn.

During the fall of 1863, Garfield, now a U.S. representative in the 38th Congress, returned to the field with a general’s rank to serve as the chief of staff for Major General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Army of the Cumberland. On September 19 and 20, Confederate Gen. Bragg, reinforced by James Longstreet’s veterans from Virginia, badly defeated Rosecrans at Chickamauga in northeast Georgia by driving half his army from the field—including Rosecrans and Garfield.

At a crossroads, Rosecrans and Garfield paused. One way lead to Chattanooga and safety. The other way lead back to the battlefield where the Union’s George Thomas was still fighting on Snodgrass Hill. Rosecrans went with the remainder of the army back to Chattanooga and eventual obscurity. Garfield, on the other hand, returned to the battlefield.

It may seem like an insignificant event—after all, most of the army was in retreat—but it illustrates that Garfield’s instincts were sharp—as were his political calculations. Many senior officers were later cashiered, especially Rosecrans. Who would re-elect a congressman who ran? But a congressman who ran BUT went back to fight? Different story. Garfield was promoted to major general. (Glenn Tucker gives details of this event on p. 311-313 of his Chickamauga, 1961.)

He would later leave the army for good when his term began that December and remained in Congress until he was elected to the U.S. Senate just before his nomination as a dark horse candidate in 1880.

Congressman Garfield
Once firmly ensconced in the House, Garfield joined the Radicals and embraced their hard-line course against the South. He chafed against Lincoln’s seeming moderation and would join his fellow Republicans and break with Johnson over Reconstruction. He grew disappointed in his fellow Ohioan, Salmon P. Chase, who as chief justice presided over Johnson’s impeachment. Garfield had considered Chase a political mentor but left Chase behind when he seemed to favor the defense during the trial (which wasn’t really true).

Garfield became known as a fiscal hardliner; he embraced the hard-money policies that favored the return to the gold standard. Rutkow explains that Garfield, knowing his district was politically safe (i.e., he never faced a serious challenge, and only once was his margin of victory below 60%) could make a serious, fiscally sound case for hard money without having to cater to political whims.

During his decade-and-a-half career in Congress, he also formed a rivalry/friendship with James G. Blaine of Maine, one of the key power figures of late 19th century Republican politics. Blaine had power in the House, and while he was Speaker, kept Garfield from leading the Ways & Means Committee. When the Democrats gained control of Congress, however, Garfield became the ranking opposition member—and a respected one at that.

Garfield’s career was nearly derailed through three separate scandals. “His involvement in these affairs seemed strange at the time,” writes Rutkow, “ since Garfield was decidedly puritanical in his views concerning public officials, industrialists and illicit business dealings.” (p.32) However, Garfield’s name came up in connection to the Credit Mobilier scandal. The federal government had subsidized a large portion of the Union Pacific’s construction from Nebraska to Utah. To cover up some money laundering, stock for the dummy corporation, the Credit Mobilier, was spread around Congress.

Garfield was among the congressmen who accepted stock, though by his word, he had no honest recollection about the matter. His less-than-forthcoming answers to investigators, however, hurt him politically. Soon, he had to justify his participation in the “Salary grab” of 1873, where Congress voted itself a 50% pay increase the same year the Panic hit (see entry on Grant).

Garfield was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee; so, of course public wrath came his way. He sent a letter to his constituents explaining what happened—and wasn’t entirely truthful in his explanation. Nevertheless, the safeness of his district and the distance of the next election prevented the twp scandals from hurting him too much. The final scandal was as much a scandal as a conflict of interest, where Garfield, as a lawyer, represented clients on one end and worked on legislation related to those same clients on the other. Rutkow relegates the matter to poor judgment rather than corruption.

Garfield was to play a role in the 1876 election crisis when he was appointed to the 15-member commission that was to decide the fate of the disputed electoral votes. What’s most notable about this is Garfield’s attitude: Rutkow relates that Garfield was “tired of the namby-pamby way in which many of our Republicans treat public questions.” (p.38) This speaks to Garfield’s desire to get things done boldly, not timidly, and he would carry that frustration throughout Hayes’ administration.

Hayes’ partial attempts at civil service reform, which Garfield didn’t fully support (because he didn’t like the rule that federal civil servants couldn’t participate in party politics) left the congressman despondent. Even those mild efforts met with strong opposition, and in Garfield’s opinion, that made the Hayes administration an “almost fatal blow” to the Republican Party.

Near the end of the 1870s, Garfield realized that he needed to move to the Senate and easily won the open seat in 1879.

The election of 1880
It’s true that James Garfield was a dark horse candidate. When President Hayes finally convinced his fellow Republicans that he really did mean he wasn’t going to seek a second term, party power brokers aimed to succeed Hayes with their own brand of Republicanism.

There were three main factions. The first were the Stalwarts: New York boss and Senator Roscoe Conkling lead them and backed ex-President Grant for a third term. Conkling ruled New York politics and had crossed Hayes over control of the New York Customhouse, the most lucrative port in the nation. The senator, according to some historians, wanted a third Grant term because Grant was supposedly controllable, though that seems dubious. More likely it was because Grant’s attempts at civil service reform came to naught.

The second powerful faction was the Half-Breeds, so called because they had pledged only partial support to the Grant administration and when they broke with Grant, they maintained some “see I told you so” style of credibility. They were led by Maine’s charismatic and slick James G. Blaine.

The third faction was basically the rest of the party, which bowed to neither the East Coast money interests nor the corridors of power. They were made up of the Midwestern and Western states (the South being a solid Democratic bloc). Their candidate was outgoing Treasury Secretary John Sherman.

Grant and Blaine held the strongest leads throughout much of the balloting, with Sherman barely registering. But on the 36th ballot, Blaine and Sherman supporters switched to Garfield, who won the nomination. It’s fascinating in that Garfield, already noted for his speaking skills, supposedly wasn’t actively seeking the nomination—though the did he or didn’t he question is still disputed—was by far the most popular man at the convention, even more so than Grant. When introducing Sherman’s candidacy, cries of “Garfield!” nearly drowned him out.

Conkling’s Stalwarts weren’t exactly mollified when Chester A. Arthur was selected to be the vice presidential candidate—convention politicking had gone against the Grant backers—and Garfield wasn’t exactly enamored with the choice either. It would cause some problems later.

The Democrats chose a genuine war hero—and a confirmed Democrat—as their candidate: Winfield Scott Hancock, the Army of the Potomac’s best corps commander (II Corps). Among his many laurels, Hancock had fought in almost every major battle in the east and had broken Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

Garfield returned to Mentor where he conducted the first ever “front-porch campaign,” where party-members, supporters, well-wishers, bands, clubs, civic organizations by the wagon- and trainload came to hear speeches and see the candidate.

Campaign issues at first centered around 1876, but Democrats really couldn’t gain any traction, both because Hayes was not running and because their own investigations had revealed shady dealings on behalf of their own candidate (see previous entry). The campaigns instead focused on the two men. Admittedly, Hancock was the war hero while Garfield, though a general, really couldn’t compete, and Republicans knew they couldn’t touch Hancock’s service. Instead, they focused on him being the figurehead leader of a corrupt party; Democrats returned the favor.

Garfield got a tremendous boost in October when Democratic supporters attempted to damage the Republican by claiming he supported unlimited Chinese immigration. (See the last entry for more on this issue.) The letter, addressed to a “H.L. Morley” of Massachusetts, was published in a newspaper called The Truth. Chinese immigration was a heated issue in the West, and Garfield hurt himself by not answering the widely disseminated charge quickly. Finally, he provided a letter refuting the charge, and handwriting experts declared the Morley letter an obvious forgery. (Gee, this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it, Dan Rather?)

Garfield’s stature went up, the Democrats took a hit (no evidence Hancock was involved) and Garfield won in a close election. He took 214 electoral votes to Hancock’s 155, and just under 9,500 popular votes from over 9 million cast.

“Power” cabinet
With the election won, Garfield set about organizing the administration. The president-elect always must satisfy the various factions of the party that supports his election. To fail to do so for whatever reason usually invites problems, as it did for Grant and Hayes. This involves two things: the cabinet and appointments. The cabinet continues to be a major issue to this day; appointments have evolved into a different animal. The latter started becoming an issue in Grant’s term and would lead to tragic consequences in 1881.

The former produced two months of headaches for Garfield, making the end of 1880 and the beginning of 1881 a period of angst and frustration for the president-elect.

Garfield made his first selection by offering the State Department to James G. Blaine. The Secretary of State’s office during the 19th century was quite powerful: Europeans considered him akin to prime minister, while Americans considered him, and not the vice president, second only to the president. Garfield biographer Ira Rutkow explains that giving State to Blaine was a huge affront to Conkling—who did, after all, “deliver” the crucial state of New York for Garfield, hard feelings from the convention aside.

Conkling wanted a place in the Garfield administration, too—and not just the vice presidency, which few people thought much of. Conkling wanted one of his men at Treasury, the second-most powerful cabinet post. The Treasury secretary controlled monetary policy and a huge number of patronage positions. However, Garfield balked at the thought of having an Eastern moneyman once again in charge of federal monetary policy. Instead, he would eventually name William Windom of Minnesota to the post.

Oddly, Garfield gives the appearance of being under the domination of Blaine during this period, as the only firm commitment he got for a cabinet position was from Blaine by the time he got to Washington. None of Garfield’s proposed appointments seemed to meet with Blaine approval. Blaine also published, without Garfield’s knowledge, a pointed editorial that seemed to take aim at the Stalwarts, who were infuriated.

Garfield was dismayed at the fighting between the two strong personalities and their followers—and he still didn’t have a cabinet. Finally, in Washington, with his inauguration shortly to come, he made his choices. He offered War to Robert Todd Lincoln (A. Lincoln’s son), which gave prestige to the incoming administration. He wound up giving Treasury to Windom after abandoning all further attempts at compromise with Conkling proved futile when discussing the Navy secretary and postmaster general positions.

Garfield named Stalwart Thomas James to be postmaster general—but without consulting Conkling, which lead to, in Ira Rutkow’s words, an hour-long browbeating, where Conkling, witnessed by Arthur,

“...charg[ed] him with duplicity and lack of concern for the needs of the Republican Party. Arthur recalled that ‘for invective, sarcasm and impassioned eloquence, this was the speech of Conkling’s life.’ Garfield listened to the harangue in silence. He made no promises and made no apologies, but came away convinced, more than ever, that Conkling had little regard for most of his fellow Republicans.” (p.68)
There would be consequences.

The administration in action
President Garfield’s inaugural address is remarkable in that it was completely out of character. The man who had brought Hopkins to tears at his valedictorian fell flat during what was arguably the biggest speech of his life. Why? He was exhausted. The bruising cabinet nomination fight had left him little time to work on his speech; so, he didn’t finish until 3 that morning. When he took the oath later that day, he was wiped out.

Still, the new president took office amid prosperous times. The hard economic times were over and Garfield could look forward to tackling some interesting problems, such as pressing for education for blacks, especially in the South. Education was the key to black advancement, he argued in his inaugural, and he repeated that theme later that month in Louisiana. But other problems came up almost immediately—and probably made him happy that he picked the right men for cabinet positions.

First, Garfield set about strengthening the economy through Wall Street collaboration. Secretary Windom and Attorney General Wayne MacVeagh worked out an arrangement with brokers and bankers to redeem 5 percent and six percent government bonds for the new 3.5 percent bonds without unduly affecting the shareholders. Getting rid of the older bonds, which were used for Civil War public debt, became a bright mark for the administration—especially because it reduced interest on the public debt by 40 percent and saved the federal government $10 million a year.

Second, Garfield’s people uncovered one of the greatest scandals in American history: the “Star Route” fraud. It involved corruption in the post office, and it would take a bit of space to explain it. “Star Route” refers to special delivery routes in the southwest that were designated with a star or asterisk on the postal schedules, and that was where some of the fraud occurred. For example, one route charged the government $50,000 a year instead of the $1,000 contracted for. Biographer Rutkow explains that only someone high up in the Postal Service and elsewhere in t he government could authorize such fraud. (p.74-75)

Rumors had been circulating for years until finally a congressional investigation began. During his first week in office, Garfield ordered Postmaster General James to investigate and eliminate the abuses and corruption. He did so, and the investigation and charges would continue long after Garfield’s death.

Meanwhile, Secretary Blaine was working in Central America making the United States’ claim to any canal built in that area—a long-standing vision stretching back for several administrations.

Problems between Garfield and Arthur—and Conkling
While the Star Route fraud investigations got underway, the appointments controversy commenced once more. While Garfield was making appointments—including many black Americans to federal offices, Garfield needed to deal with the thorny problem of New York politics. The battle for civil service reform had only been postponed following Hayes’ half measures. The president actually invited Conkling in March to discuss appointments in hopes of somehow healing the rift. Garfield told the senator that while he agreed with the Stalwart’s suggestions, he needed to remember the non-Stalwart New Yorkers who had supported him in Chicago. Conkling thought they should be “exiled” to foreign service for all he cared.

Once more, Garfield seemed to be under the sway of a powerful personality when he submitted a number of Stalwart names for New York positions. An outraged Secretary Blaine tried to dissuade Garfield, but instead, the president sent another appointment: William Robertson, a Conkling enemy, as collector customs of the Port of New York.

Garfield might as well have kneed Conkling in the groin. Writes Rutkow:

“To appoint one of Conkling’s enemies to the coveted of all patronage positions was both a bold political stroke and a supreme insult to the Stalwarts. ‘This brings on the contest at once and will settle the question whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States,’ Garfield wrote to one of his friends. ‘Shall the principal port of entry in which more than 90% of all our customs duties are collected be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional senator?’” (p.76-77)
The showdown brought matters to a head with his vice president. Chester Arthur (who had held the post in dispute until Hayes kicked him out) was a pure Stalwart. He and Garfield never got along—party politics had made them running mates—and the Robertson affair drove them completely apart. Arthur refused to speak to Garfield for a month, and soon started calling the president a liar—in public. Incensed, Garfield barred Arthur from the White House.

Conkling eventually lost the fight. Garfield gained in stature while Conkling, in desperation, resigned his seat in protest. The Senate confirmed Robertson anyway. “Grateful” New York voters did not return Conkling, to his surprise, to the Senate.

Garfield had struck a blow against “boss” politics and won.

A man named Guiteau
The battle over appointments created the most unfortunate consequence. Throughout most of the 19th century, the president had to spend the first several months of his term making appointments, and not just the high profile ones. There were thousands of federal posts that needed to be filled. Often, presidents of the same party kept many men on to ease the burden. Even with cabinet officials sharing the load, it was a tiresome and thankless job.

The chief executive was usually assessable to anyone, and Garfield was no exception. On his inauguration day and for weeks after, well-wishers and office-seekers flooded the White House. On of them was a would-be Stalwart named Charles Guiteau. He claimed that he had been key to Garfield’s election and therefore deserved a lucrative foreign posting. In truth, he had made crazy-man speeches on a street corner.

When his repeated visits to the White House and State Department led to no appointments—and actually caused him to be barred from both buildings—Guiteau turned against Garfield. When the president defeated Conkling, Guiteau decided that that Garfield needed to die: His death as the only way that the Stalwarts could take control and prevent the Democrats from starting another war.

Despite Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—even despite the attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson—there was still no guards for the president. Often presidents rode and walked alone or in the company of a few people. On July 2, 1881, President Garfield and Secretary Blaine walked alone into a Washington train station. They were heading to New Jersey and then other places east.

Once the duo had walked past him, Guiteau pulled out his .44 and shot Garfield twice.

The 80 days
If modern doctors had treated Garfield, he probably would have lived; the shooting would have had no more significance than the attempt on Reagan in 1981 and Guiteau would be akin to John Hinkley Jr. as a would-be assassin.

Guiteau’s first shot grazed Garfield’s right arm. His second shot hit him square in the back. Garfield went down; a policeman captured the shooter, who was screaming about being a Stalwart and that Arthur was now president. Blaine cradled the bleeding Garfield. Four cabinet members out on the platform at first thought a joke had been made: the president—shot?

Soon doctors arrived, including one of the few black American doctors. Garfield was moved to a second floor. He was weakening. Doctor Willard Bliss, a wartime gunshot expert and chief surgeon for the U.S. Armory’s hospital in Washington and current member of the DC Board of Health, soon arrived and took command. He probed for the bullet—most likely with dirty fingers—but couldn’t find it. Ten doctors in all gathered and finally agreed to let the president return to the White House.

He couldn’t have been in worse hands. Biographer Rutkow, a clinical professor of surgery who earned his doctorate of public health from Johns Hopkins, is an expert in the history of American medicine. His biography of Garfield is quite damning of the incompetent “care” that Garfield received from Bliss and the few other attending physicians.

Bliss took charge of the president and, like a mini dictator, controlled all access to Garfield and all information concerning his condition. Few visitors were permitted to see him, including family. Even the president’s personal physician was kicked out. The medical community loudly debated Bliss’ methods, but apparently the administration let him have his way. Worse, every doctor who probed into Garfield’s wound did so with unwashed fingers and non-sterilized instruments:

“From the moment that Bliss first placed his finger and instruments into Garfield’s wound, the president’s health was compromised. What had been a relatively clean bullet track was transformed into a highly contaminated one.” (Rutkow, p.110-111)

Garfield’s infected body was shaken with fever, loss of appetite and pain.

Meanwhile, the shocked nation clung to every bit of news that came from the White House, regardless of how seemingly false it was. Vice President Arthur came under immediate suspicion, and did Roscoe Conkling, considering the would-be assassin confessed his status as a “stalwart’s Stalwart.”

Months passed and finally the emaciated Garfield could take no more and demanded to be moved from the White House. A special train carried him to the New Jersey shore on Sept. 6. Bliss, seemingly delusional himself, kept telling reporters the president was recovering, but others attending him told a different story. President Garfield was clearly dying.

Finally, his painful ordeal was over on Sept. 19.

Chester A. Arthur was sworn in the next day, though in truth, the nation had been without a chief executive since that fateful July day. The hard feelings between Garfield and Arthur—and Bliss, of course—kept Arthur from the White House throughout much of the abbreviated presidency.

The shooting and his ordeal had two lasting legacies. The first was the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform in 1883, which I’ll discuss in the next entry. The second was the intense debate his treatment (or lack thereof) helped spark in a medical community undergoing a major—and positive—transition. “The controversies surrounding Garfield’s death became a dividing line between the new and the old in American medicine,” writes Rutkow, who explains that the heated discussions centered on antiseptics, trained nurses, homeopathy, etc. (Even Charles Guiteau, whose lawyer argued for insanity, claimed that he didn’t kill Garfield; the doctors did. The judge didn’t agree, and Guiteau was executed.)

The arguments would continue for some time, and Rutkow notes that Bliss’ defenders would still be defending his methods when McKinley was assassinated 20 years later.

Final Assessment

Garfield was shot six months into his term and died in September, so, like William Henry Harrison, historians never rate him, and neither will I. But the second president to be assassinated, and second to die so shortly into his term, certainly left his mark on his age.

It’s not just that his death finally began the real reform in civil service. Also, Garfield’s life was one of the bright political stars of the post-war era. The tale of the “young man in a hurry” was a true rags-to-riches story, where a poor boy rose to prominence through his wits, eloquence, quick thinking and ability to compromise.

Garfield’s abbreviated presidency had great promise. He took on—and beat—one of the most powerful political bosses in the nation. His fiscal responsibility reduced public debt. He was attentive to racial matters and kept appointing black Americans to office. He ordered a deep investigation into the U.S. Postal Service fraud. A great “what if” was cut short.

Final assessment: No rating but popular.

Ira Rutkow’s James Garfield (2006) of The American Presidents series is fascinating because Rutkow is a clinical professor of surgery—and says that Garfield shouldn’t have died. Medical incompetence killed him, not Guiteau’s bullets.

Also useful was The Presidencies of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur (University of Kansas American Presidency Series) by Justus D. Doenecke (1981).


1 President James A. Garfield

2 Brigadier Gen. James Garfield, probably circa 1863

3 Garfield and family. His wife sits at the table; Garfield’s mother sits at far right.

4 Garfield had several pictures taken of him together with his daughter, little Mollie.

5 This Joseph Keppler cartoon published in Puck on June 16, 1880, shows Ulysses S. Grant, wearing a Civil War uniform, along with many unhappy Republican backers, handing his damaged sword "Third term imperialism" to James Garfield, who is holding paper titled "for nomination President Garfield," in front of "Fort Alliance (anti-third-term)."

6 Garfield received thousands of visitors throughout the 1880 campaign at his Mentor, Ohio, home, pictures here in the Dec. 18, 1880, Frank Leslie’s illustrated.

7 Broadside showing James A. Garfield (right) and Chester A. Arthur.

8 Garfield’s bond of friendship for the unfriendly senators shows President Garfield wrapping a “patronage” ribbon around James Blaine (front) and Roscoe Conkling, as shown in Puck on March 2, 1881.

9 The attack on the President's life--Scene in the ladies' room of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot--The arrest of the assassin, from sketches by our special artist's [sic] A. Berghaus and C. Upham in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, July 16, 1881.

10 New Jersey--The removal of President Garfield, with his physicians and attendants, from the White House to the Francklyn cottage, at Elberon by the sea, September 6th, in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, Sept. 24, 1881.

11 New Jersey--President Garfield at Elberon--His first view of the ocean from his reclining-chair, Sept. 13th in Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, Oct. 1, 1881.

12 Portrait of the late President James A. Garfield, painted by G.F. Gilman.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Number 19: Rutherford B. Hayes

Years in office: 1877-1881
Pre-service occupations: lawyer, governor, U.S. representative, general
Key events during his administration: end of Reconstruction (1877), “Great Railroad Strike” (1877), resumption of specie payments (1879), Nez Perce campaign (1877)

Presidential rating: Mildly successful and mixed on popularity


Rutherford B. Hayes seems like one of those “footnote” presidents—an also-ran. Indeed, Hayes’ ascendancy in 1876 marks the string of presidents until Teddy Roosevelt whom most people today are hard-pressed to put in the correct order, much less even name.

Rutherford “Rud” Hayes even enjoyed an ever-so-brief moment in the spotlight seven years ago during the Florida recount, because his own election to president involved disputed ballots and the Democrat candidate (Tilden) winning the popular vote while losing the electoral vote. Then he faded from memory again. In what’s becoming a usual refrain in these reports on the presidents, that’s a shame.

Historians of the Gilded Age often gloss over, speed through or grossly distort the presidents of this era, and Hayes is no exception. Hayes was a decent president; he faced one tremendous crisis in his term—the great strikes of 1877—but his actions are usually misunderstood or, worse, misreported, and his presidency is forgotten (save for the above-mentioned election). But his president shouldn’t be overlooked, because Hayes was a solid and respectable president during a time when the great passions of the previous decades had finally cooled. He stayed true to the Constitution and fought back several attempts by the Democratic-controlled Congress to usurp executive authority, and he made sure that his predecessor’s hard money policy became law, thereby greatly strengthening the nation’s economy.

“Rud” Hayes took office amid cries of fraud. Indeed, the opposition press even addressed him as “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency.” Hayes took office amid a nation still struggling economically and weary from the last two decades of turmoil. Reconstruction was ending; race was fading as an issue while the nation turned its attention to labor versus capital and remaining campaigns in and settling of the West. As president, Hayes was able to steer the nation through these challenges with a quiet dignity. He wasn’t always successful in his endeavors, as we shall see, but overall, his presidency was very respectable.

Early life
Rud Hayes had one of the more interesting upbringings. At first a sickly child whose survival was questioned, Hayes developed into a rigorous young man. He loved to learn and equally loved to hear loquacious and educated men speak. He joined a prominent social club, the Cincinnati Literary Club, which included Salmon P. Chase, who would be Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Not exactly a young Lochinvar, young Rud Hayes nevertheless won the hand of the lovely Lucy Ware Webb in 1852. Lucy would prove to be one of the most popular first ladies ever. Together, they had six children who lived to adulthood.

Hayes studied law, graduated from Harvard Law and eventually opened a practice in Cincinnati. Politics eventually beckoned and he entered public service in Cincinnati, but the war put a temporary stop to further ambitions on that front.

Soldier for the Union
Rutherford Hayes volunteered his services to Ohio shortly after the war began. He was made an officer in the 23rd Ohio, a regiment Hayes retained close to his heart the rest of his life. Much of his war career was spent in western (soon West) Virginia, where he was wounded four times.

Hayes loathed being assigned away from command situations, as happened when he was made a regimental judge advocate. He much preferred being in charge than being one of many.

He saw some action during the early fighting in western Virginia, but his first huge battle didn’t come until South Mountain, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 1862, where he was wounded. Made a colonel, Hayes commanded a brigade at year’s end and fought Confederate raiders, including John Hunt Morgan on the latter’s raid into Ohio in 1863. The following year, Hayes fought under George Crook at the vicious fight at Cloyd’s Mountain in West Virginia. Hayes then took part in Phil Sheridan’s subjugation of the Shenandoah Valley, fighting at Opequon Creek, Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. He took three more wounds and lost four horses. Hayes finished the war a brevet major general.

During the campaigns of 1861-62, Hayes earned a reputation for fairness, mildness and the ability to get along with the most difficult officers, especially his commander. His wife, Lucy, often took a harsher and more critical view of President Lincoln and commanders in the field than did Hayes, who always counseled his wife to have patience and trust that things would work out. Lucy didn’t like how Lincoln seemed to toss aside Generals Fremont and Pope (see essay on Lincoln). She was a pure abolitionist who had convinced her husband of the cause. But Hayes, Trefousse writes, was “more farsighted than many of his contemporaries” when it came to judging situations and character (p.24), and his letters to Lucy reveal his foresight and grasp of events in anticipation of official developments. It was a trait that usually served him well as president.

Congressman and governor
In 1864, Hayes’ home district elected him to Congress. Hayes refused to leave his command to campaign for the office, saying that no officer fit for duty should leave his post to electioneer for Congress—and one who did “ought to be scalped.” He won easily and didn’t have to worry about leaving the Army because he wouldn’t have to take his seat until December 1865.

At first, Hayes felt comfortable with President Johnson. But like many moderate Republicans, Hayes reluctantly broke with the president when it became clear they were moving in two different directions. He became convinced of the rightness and justness of the Radical Republican policy in the South, and during one speech in Ohio, said there were two Reconstruction policies: Lincoln’s and Jefferson Davis’. Obviously, he placed President Johnson’s with the latter.

Midway through his second term in Congress, Hayes resigned to campaign for Ohio governor. Congress wasn’t where his ambitions lay, anyway. Even though Ohio’s governor had limited executive authority, it was a position of authority and more to Hayes’s liking. He hemmed and hawed properly then accepted the nomination—and went out to fight a difficult campaign.

Ohio was the home to Oberlin College, where white and black students studied together as equals, but the state as a whole did not want equal rights. The Republican Party ran on a plank of an equal rights amendment to Ohio’s constitution, which the Democrats strongly opposed. Republicans fared badly in the state’s ballots that fall, as the amendment was soundly defeated, a Democrat was elected to Hayes’ seat, the Democrats controlled the state house—but Hayes squeaked by and won the governor’s mansion, taking office in early 1868.

Ohio’s governor during that time didn’t have much power as he didn’t even have veto authority. Yet Hayes was popular enough to serve two non-consecutive terms. He had decided to quit political office at the end of the first term, in 1872, but as he continued to follow politics closely, he got swept in again and won a second term in 1876.

This victory in a key presidential state made him a contender to succeed Grant that year.

The disputed election—“Rutherfraud” Hayes
By 1876, the Republican Party was exhausted. The turmoil of the last 12 years had spent the party, especially Reconstruction and the “waving of the bloody shirt” over outrages in the South against blacks and Republican supporters. Grant’s handling of scandals didn’t help matters much either, nor his determination to fight for Reconstruction when the party was looking to end it. Democrats were resurgent in the South as the states were “redeemed” with white-controlled governments. Northern attentions were focused more on westward expansion, labor and economic concerns, Indian wars, and so on.

The detritus of the Civil War was fading. The party needed a fresh start. Many new faces—at least new to presidential politics—stepped forward in hopes of getting a nomination that summer. Democrats nominated Samuel Tilden of New York, a strong contender who had successfully fought the corruption of “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall ring.

The Republican favorite at first was James G. Blaine of Maine—who we’ll hear from again through the next several administrations—but after coming close on several ballots, finally lost to Hayes. Why Hayes? He was considered a safer choice than Blaine, who was thought damaged by false charges of corruption involving railroad bonds. Even though cleared of the charges, enough Republicans thought a candidate with the sting of a corruption charge versus a candidate who won his stripes fighting corruption was a deal-breaker. So, Hayes was nominated. His running mate was William Wheeler, of whom Hayes confessed, “I’m sorry, but who is Wheeler?”

This was still the era when candidates didn’t stump for themselves, so Hayes remained in Cincinnati, performing his duties as governor, while the campaigns whirled on. Democrats ran on Republican corruption, while Republicans countered by saying that “Not every Democrat was a rebel, but every rebel was a Democrat.”

The election was close—so close that Hayes retired on election day believing he had lost. Tilden commanded a popular majority, and it seemed he had won the electoral vote. He started going about his business the next day until he received notice that some states were still in dispute.

The ballots in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were a mess. The governors of those states had certified the ballots—the governors recognized b y the federal government, that is. Florida’s Democratic governor-elect and Louisiana’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate signed their own certificates. The Tilden electors from South Carolina merely sent them to Washington with no certification, claiming their man had won. There were also bad ballots, deliberate fraud on ballots and other problems.

A major crisis was now at hand. This was far beyond the first major disputed election, that of 1824 when the race between John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and William Crawford was thrown to the House. With outgoing President Grant’s full support, the Congress formed the 15-member Electoral Commission to settle the matter. Members would be three Republican senators and two Democrat senators (the Republicans controlled the Senate), two Republican representatives and three Democrat representatives (the Democrats controlled the House), and five Supreme Court justices (two from each party). Most justices were Republicans, so by common accord, the most impartial justice was selected to be the fifth member.

The commission formed and met in late January, with strong counsel representing each candidate. They reviewed the dual sets of returns from the three states, and decided that they would not review ballots beyond those that were prima facie lawful (meaning they wouldn’t create any new standards for counting votes). In the end, the impartial justice sided with the seven Republican members, and awarded the disputed electoral ballots to Hayes, giving him the 185-184 victory. Only the 2000 election would be closer.

In 1878, Democrats in Congress attempted to embarrass Hayes by proving Republicans committed fraud during the election—and thereby strengthening their hand in 1880. Their Potter committee, however, backfired, when it was forced to examine actual fraud committed by Tilden’s nephew, who attempted to bribe officials in the South. Their grandstanding failed to destroy its intended target—the Republican Party—but instead strengthened Hayes’ stature and damaged Tilden too badly for him to be a contender again. * (See Resources for Treffousse’s mistaken conclusions of 1876 vs. 2000.)

The Hayes cabinet
Once inaugurated, Hayes set about asserting his independence. He didn’t care much for the game of awarding political offices to party men simply because they were “due” or because they “deserved” it. Nor did he like making appointments to satisfy wings of the party.

Like Grant (though Hayes’s biographers never make this point), Hayes appointed whom he wanted without consulting party leaders. His choices were good and strong, and some biographers have hailed his cabinet as the best post-Lincoln one for the remainder of the century. There is some truth to that sentiment, in that the men served ably and honorably, and many went on to greater success and fame.

For example, to State, that most crucial of posts, Hayes named William Evarts, who had represented the president during the election crisis. Evarts had enjoyed an interesting career up to that point: he served as Johnson’s chief counsel during the impeachment mess, then Johnson’s final attorney general; he later served as point man for Grant and Hamilton Fish’s Alabama claims arbitration. Evarts’ term at State would be solid; he would later serve in the Senate and would lead the fundraising drive for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal in 1881.

At Treasury, Hayes selected his fellow from the Buckeye state, John Sherman. The brother of the famed general was a hard-money man like the president. Sherman would gain greater fame as the architect of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.

At Interior, Hayes appointed the fiery Carl Schurz, a liberal (old sense) Republican who had been instrumental in creating the liberal Republican/Democrat alliance for 1872 to defeat Grant. Schurz had opposed placing the Indian Bureau under the War Department (an idea of Grant’s that Grant abandoned as president). When placed in charge of Interior, Schurz would attack the corruption in that department with a zeal that had long been needed. More on that later.

Meanwhile, party leaders, such as Maine’s James G. Blaine, were dismayed at Hayes’ choices, particularly because they had not been consulted—and many who wanted those choice posts were mad, as had happened with Grant.

It wasn’t a good beginning for the president, especially considering half the nation’s voters initially considered him to be a fraud—but ruffled feathers ignore the fact that he made good choices.

1877: Reconstruction swan song
Supposedly—I use that word deliberately—the resolution of the election of 1876 included a deal whereby Democrats would acquiesce to President Hayes and forget about “President” Tilden in exchange for the removal of Federal troops from the South (meaning, they would no longer protect the two remaining Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana, and would decamp from the state houses and return to their forts).

But that’s not quite what happened. The above paragraph is the informal “Compromise of 1877,” but President Hayes, if he actually felt beholden to it, took his time. Chief among his concerns was the seeming abandonment of blacks and Republican government in the South. What he wanted was assurances from the Democratic governors that black and non-Redeemer whites rights would be respected and upheld. Hayes got those assurances during meetings at the White House—and the troops were withdrawn—but they proved disingenuous, to put it kindly.

At first, the president believed his Southern policy was a success and a new political alignment and racial harmony was in the making. Crowds of well-wishers of blacks and whites who greeted him while on a tour of the South in later 1877 convinced him of the correctness of his policy—but also made him succumb to wishful thinking. Hayes, a good man, was being snowballed by Redeemers and white supremacists that had no intention of adhering to his policy or any of the federal laws favorable to black citizens. Hayes biographer Ari Hoogenboom explains:

“He believed that the war wounds had been healed, that white southerners had accepted the Reconstruction amendments safeguarding black lives, rights, and property, and that conservative Democrats would ignore color and sectional lines in politics and would move over to the Republican Party.

Hayes was wrong. The war wounds were not healed, white southerners had applauded the amendments because they thought it likely that they would be neither enforced nor obeyed, and conservative Democrats did not join the Republican party, which steadily shrank until its members were a mere handful of officeholders. A more cynical person than Hayes would not have expected southerners to be rapidly converted to civil and political rights for black. He failed to perceive the pervasiveness and the viciousness of racial prejudice in southern politics and society…” (Hoogenboom, p. 70)
So, the “redeemed” South meant not only the end of Reconstruction but threatened to be the end of everything gained since 1865. And the 1878 elections proved just how misplaced Hayes’ optimism was concerning his southern policy. Hayes, to his credit, took up the cause of civil rights and would fight the Democratic-controlled Congress over enforcement of the hard-won results of the Civil War. More on that later.

1877: The Great Strike
The Panic that started in 1873 stretched into Hayes’ term. Grant’s Resumption Act, which Hayes supported and effectively ended the depression, wouldn’t take effect for two more years. (More on that later.) During the summer of Hayes’ first year, massive strikes gripped first the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in West Virginia and then many more industries nationwide.

Railroads dealt with the hard economy through cutting costs. Some lines pooled their freight hauling; some fired workers; most lines decided to reduce wages, usually by 10%. Some lines’ employees took the cut in their already low pay in stride, because they were still employed. Others, already smarting from previous wage cuts, couldn’t take it any more. In West Virginia, the trouble began.

Strikers brought rail traffic to a halt in many centers, including Chicago, East St. Louis, Decatur, Ill., and half a dozen other places. Strikers—who were soon outnumbered by general mobs—police, “vigilantes” and finally militia clashed in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The militia in Pittsburgh killed 20 and wounded 29; the strikers fought back harder and torched 39 buildings, more than 100 steam engines and more than 1,200 pieces of rolling stock. More violence erupted between mobs and police in Chicago. The violence—and the strikes—finally subsided after a month.

Hayes biographer Ari Hoogenboom notes that the great strike was the closest America ever came to a nationwide work stoppage, and it was also testament to the fact that by 1877, the United States economy had truly become national. Hoogenboom also notes that Hayes examined the situation carefully, and, mindful of how federal troops had been used in civilian situations during the past 12 years, charted a constitutionally correct course.

Hayes had dealt with strikers as Ohio’s governor, and as president he would follow exactly the same course: he said that people had the right to work and that property owners had the right to the use and possession of their property, and that he would use force if necessary to keep the peace (and nothing more). The president was most concerned with avoiding using federal soldiers to keep the railroads running, because the strikers kept their heads and allowed passenger trains, with the all-important mail, to keep running. They only blocked freight trains and battled strikebreakers, police and militia attempting to move them along. Interfering with the mail would have been a federal matter; stopping freight trains, however, was not. So, Hayes decided that the best course would be to use U.S. Marines and Army regulars to protect federal property, and, if asked properly by state governors, to keep the peace (i.e., break riots). Hayes refused to order the military to run the railroads.

The Wikipedia entry on Hayes (as of Oct. 19, 2007) claims “Hayes called in federal troops, who, for the first time in U.S. history, fired on the striking workers, killing over 70.” Rubbish! The only soldiers who fired on strikers were the various states’ National Guard units. Marines and soldiers arrived to maintain the peace and often too late to break up a fight. That’s according to both Hoogenboom and Trefousse. Historians who disparage the Gilded Age look down on Hayes as if he sided with the railroads against the strikers, but again, he did no such thing. Hayes reflected later in his diary that

“The strikes have been put down by force; but now for the real remedy. Can’t something be done by education of the strikers, by judicious control of the capitalists, by wise general policy to end or diminish the evil?” (Trefousse, p.95; emphasis in original)

It is an interesting sentiment, but his sympathy went only so far, because Hayes believed that no man, however just his cause, had a right to interfere with another man’s right to work. **

The Nez Perce campaign, the Poncas and Indian Bureau reform
One of the most dramatic incidents that occurred during Hayes’ term was the Nez Perce campaign of 1877. Chief Joseph and several chiefs fought one of the most brilliant fighting retreats in modern history, leading 800 Nez Perce through 13 battles and 1,700 miles through Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Montana and finally Idaho, where they finally surrendered. The best brief chronicle of the events can be found in Alvin Josephy Jr.’s The Patriot Chiefs.

Hayes’ role in this campaign was negligible, but as president he sought to continue Grant’s reform of the corrupt Interior Department, including the Indian Bureau, which was one of the main sore points of contention between settlers and Indians on the plains and western reaches. Grant’s reforms hadn’t been perfect—soreness and some indecision had lead to the Nez Perce dissatisfaction and subsequent enforced reservation life—but they had been a strong step in the right direction. The reforms under Hayes and Interior Secretary Schurz were better.

With the single-mindedness that had made him a dangerous political enemy—or powerful friend—Schurz uncovered fraud, deception and corruption inside the bureau and out in the field. The new Hays/Schruz reforms included more funding for schools on reservations (Congress approved) and, for the first time, Indian police officers on reservations. The concept was expanded under President Arthur to include the appointment of Indian judges. Hoogenboom writes that by “mixing Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence with Native American practices, policemen and judges were able to keep order on reservations, and they proved effective agents of acculturation.” (p.162-163)

President Hayes earns a strong mark for his reforms, and for his handling of an unfortunate episode that happened on his watch. The land of the Poncas tribe in Nebraska was mistakenly given to some Sioux, and the Poncas were removed to the Oklahoma territory in a rather harsh journey. The new land was unacceptable, and new land was found, but many Poncas wanted to return home. The affair grew uglier—but not bloody—and eventually lead to an extraordinary personal apology from the president himself.

Hayes wrote:

“As the chief executive at the time when the wrong was consummated, I am deeply sensible that enough of the responsibility for that wrong justly attaches to me to make it my particular duty and earnest desire to do all that I can give to these injured people that measure of redress which is
required alike by justice and by humanity.” (Trefousse, p.124)
It was a bold and honorable move that satisfied the Poncas and earned him admirations from men who had formerly opposed him as a “fraud.”

Civil service reform
The president also busied himself with another kind of reform: The civil service was badly in need of a makeover. Grant’s attempts had lead to false cries of corruption from the very crusaders for reform. Hayes took up the challenge, and this occupied much of the attention of his administration.

Civil service reform was a complicated matter. Political parties expected a share of the government pie in terms of appointments to the thousands of lucrative posts, such as postmasters and ports collectors. For example, in return for supporting a successful candidate for Congress—or even president—a powerful party operative had every reasonable reason to expect some of the appointment largess to come his way for his contacts. Inevitably, this often allowed incompetent or immoral (or both) men to hold offices.

The spoils system was the most serious obstacle to getting rid of corruption in civil service, because it let members of Congress interfere with the appointments process—which was an executive function, not a legislative one. Hayes and Schurz sought to replace the spoils system with a merit system, and prevent officeholders from participating in political activities—thus removing undue political influence. It was fine in theory. But in practice? Hayes moved cautiously, which angered reformers who wanted the reform Now! and had long-since grown impatient with Republican reform efforts. But he also angered party leaders such as New York’s Roscoe Conkling, who chaffed at even mild efforts at changing the lucrative spoils system.

The president’s cautious approach brought much criticism—and a showdown over the New York Customhouse (which collected 70 percent of U.S. customs revenue), run by Conkling patron Chester A. Arthur. Hayes tried to remove Arthur and another man from the Boston customs house and replace them with his own appointments (made in consultation with, ironically, spoilsmen), but Congress defeated them in late 1877.

Hoogenboom illuminates this early Hayes defeat by describing the politicians as “disappointed” and the reformers as “peeved” and the administration’s reform credibility as “eroded.” (p.134-135) Hayes was a little inconsistent, because he did use patronage to his effect when it served him—particularly in the South.

Reformers would remain peeved throughout Hayes’ term and unhappy with what they considered the administration’s retreat and inconsistencies. Even though he did make decent steps, Hayes wouldn’t be able to complete reforming the civil service an passed it to his successor Garfield, who unwillingly became the symbol of reform by his death. (It’s also funny that Hayes aimed to kick Arthur out of office, connected as he was with the corrupt New York machine (though not corrupt himself), only to sit in the same seat as Hayes a few years later—and winning praise as a great civil service reformer.)

Hayes versus Congress
As stated earlier, President Hayes fought hard against a Congress determined to undo the progress made on civil rights since the Civil War. If Lincoln started the second American revolution and Grant won and sustained that victory, Hayes is one of the many unsung presidents who helped sustain it.

Hayes was a weakened president by the end of 1877 through the combination of his cabinet appointments, civil service reform and the end of Reconstruction. Democrats in Congress realized that if they were to take complete control in the South and regain the White House in 1880, federal oversight of Congressional elections needed to be eliminated. Thanks to the 1878 elections, in 1879, Hayes faced a Democratic-controlled Congress. But as that Congress was about to learn, it wasn’t veto-proof, and “his Fraudulency” was no pushover. Rud Hayes was a mild man, but when his dander was up, he was as rigid as steel.

First, the outgoing 45th Congress failed to appropriate money for the federal government when it adjourned in March (the Republican-controlled Senate had refused to go along with the Democrat scheme to prevent enforcement of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, so no funding was approved). President Hayes called the incoming congress into immediate session to get the appropriate funding.

The now-Democrat-controlled House and Senate tried four times to pass bills aimed at removing any type of federal say in the South. Each time, Hayes vetoed the bills. First they tried prohibiting military protection at federal elections, which Hayes declared unconstitutional because it denied the federal government the right to enforce its laws. Then they passed another appropriations bill with riders repealing parts of the Enforcement Acts pertaining to supervisors and marshals for elections. Hayes countered by saying that the aim was nothing more than to destroy federal control over congressional elections.

Then Congress attempted to deny compensation for federal officials at election time, and then denial of payment for marshals employed to protect polls.

Each time, Hayes vetoed the bill with a stern lecture on passing bills with unconstitutional (or unrelated) matters attached to them. With each veto, Hayes’ stature rose and the Democrats’ fell—and Hayes recovered much ground with his own party. Finally, in the summer, they gave him a bill he could sign, but sent a separate one that he once again vetoed. By this time, the Democrats were in total disarray, and well on their way to defeat in 1880.

Sound economics
Hayes was a hard-money man and had been long before he came to Washington. The nation had been off the gold standard since the Civil War, and the nation’s economy ran on government-backed gold coins, the greenbacks that the federal government began issuing during the war, and notes issued by national banks. Hayes’ predecessor had defeated an attempt to greatly expand paper currency, and supported a return to the gold standard (resumption of specie payments, meaning the greenbacks were redeemed with, or backed by, gold at face value). The Resumption Act was scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 1879.

President Hayes supported Grant’s sound economic policy and made it his own. Hoognboom explains that Hayes opposed inflation through the expansion of greenbacks in circulation and/or the substitution of a silver standard for the gold standard, and Hayes had attributed his 1875 gubernatorial victory to his hard money support (p. 93). Democrats, backers of a silver standard and some Republicans, however, attempted to undo the Resumption Act. The arguments were the same now as against Grant: expanding the money supply would relieve the economic hardships of the Panic.

Hayes, like Grant, strongly disagreed. Treasury Secretary Sherman (who had authored the Resumption Act in the Senate) built a gold reserve to prepare for 1879. The president, meanwhile, vetoed a veto-proof watered-down government silver purchase bill on the grounds that it didn’t reflect realistic commercial value. In other words, he didn’t object to silver coinage, just that it shouldn’t be put on the same level as gold-backed money. (Hoogenboom p.95 and Trefousse, p.101) ***

Hayes lost the battle over silver coinage, but won out over the inflation supporters when the year following resumption proved a spectacular success. In his subsequent speeches, Hayes usually took credit for the improved economy, and he does deserve a lot of credit by refusing to let Congress gut the Resumption Act. Hoogenboom writes:

“Above all, Hayes was determined that the nation remain on the gold standard, and he fought to eliminate any threat to it. Congress, viewing the currency, not as a question of faith and moral, but as one of politics and economics, was content to ignore that issue, especially since business was booming. But Hayes believed that his hard-money policies sustained that boom, and the continued circulation of greenback and silver dollars made him uneasy. For him, it was an eternal verity of both economic and moral law that gold was the proper base for a nation’s economic currency.” (p.100)
As we shall see in upcoming presidential profiles, the battle over greenbacks vs. silver vs. gold was just beginning.

China and Mexico
President Hayes is not known for foreign policy, but two events merit mention.

The pre-war Nativist Party—later the American Party—was the first formal anti-immigration expression in American history. That party, which faded rather quickly, opposed Irish and Catholic and other “undesirable” immigrants from Europe.

In the West, the number of Chinese immigrants had been increasing—lured, as they were first by gold and then by the American dream just like their European counterparts. A Nativist streak had infected the West, particularly in California. The great strike touched the west coast and many Chinese (called Coolies) were murdered in racist attacks. Competition for jobs and cheap labor was usually the main cause.

Californians lead Congress in passing a law in 1879 specifically restricting immigration from China. President Hayes was under immense political pressure to sign the measure, but he decided it would be a bad move for America. The act would violate the Burlingame Treaty with China and could endanger American merchants and missionaries in the empire. So Hayes sent his veto to Congress, which was sustained, and the president received praise from outside of the West for upholding the ideals of the nation’s founding.

Hayes didn’t veto the bill for idealistic reasons, because he did agree with the Californians’ sentiments to some extent. He didn’t consider the Chinese as immigrants because they were mostly men, not families, and he actually worried about a propensity of aggression among whites against “lesser” (e.g., weaker) peoples. He believed limiting immigration from China would be better for both America and China.

Meanwhile, President Hayes and Secretary Evarts attempted to deal with Mexican bandits raiding across the border and hitting American ranchers. Mexico’s government—or lack thereof—had been unstable for at least half a century. When Hayes took office, Porfirio Diaz also assumed power in Mexico and would consolidate the country until his overthrow in 1911. Diaz would prove to be a strong leader, but of course in 1877 Hayes had no way of knowing this and assumed that Diaz was yet another in the long string of weak rulers unable to control the borders.

Hayes issued orders to General Ord letting U.S. troops pursue Mexican bandits across the border, a move that led to ridiculous charges by political opponents that the president and Secretary Evarts sought to take over northern Mexico.

The troops stayed. And by 1880, Diaz had gained control of his side of the border, and Hayes rescinded the cross-border pursuit orders. Subsequently, exports to Mexico increased.

Rud Hayes had brought a great dignity and calm to the White House—some said “restored it” after the Grant years, and it is true that there was absolutely no scandal connected with the Hayes administration, absent the 1876 election. Lucy Hayes was a bright and spirited host who eschewed liquor in the presidential mansion (it’s disputed whether she was called “Lemonade Lucy” during or after the White House years). The Hayes presidency was a bright spot, and if Hayes had wanted another term, he could have easily had it.

But he didn’t. He had pledged during his campaign to serve only one year—had even proposed a Constitutional amendment limiting the president to one six-year term (as was in the Confederate Constitution)—and was tired of the ardor of presidential life. Four years was enough.

Republicans gathered in Chicago to choose Hayes’ successor. U.S. Grant had been convinced to give a try for a third term and he seemed to be the favorite at first. But rivals James G. Blaine and John Sherman threw support behind dark horse candidate Rep. James Garfield. Grant and his fervent supporters backed down, and Hayes’ fellow Ohioan won the nomination. Garfield, with Chester A. Arthur in tow, went on to defeat Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock in a close election.

Rutherford Hayes retired to his beloved Spiegel Grove estate in Ohio, where he continued to be involved in veterans’ affairs—as president, he had pressed for real veteran benefits—and other philanthropic activities. He had already been appointed to the Board of Trustees for Ohio State University, which he served until his death in January 1893.

Final Assessment

Negative historical interpretations of the Gilded Age make it easy to overlook this honest and capable moderate president’s term. Like Grant, Hayes is another president bedeviled by self-anointed intellectuals such as Henry Adams, who sneered at Hayes as a “third-rate nonentity.”

Hayes’ use of executive power was careful and measured. Contrary to popular history, he did not send federal soldiers to break the 1877 strikes on behalf of railroads, but rather to keep the peace. He vetoed appropriations bills that were unconstitutional or included riders that were inappropriate and unconstitutional, and ultimately were designed to damage or undo lawful federal authority. His one major constitutional proposal, limiting the president to one six-year-term, anticipated the post-FDR 22nd amendment (one which I oppose as long as there’s not a proportionate one for Congress and the Court).

Hayes’ attempts to reform the civil service continued the actions begun by Grant, but much of the political establishment of both parties wasn’t too interested; reformers chaffed at his careful measures. Only his successor’s murder would bring the needed change.

His treatment of Indians was even better than Grant’s. Andrew Johnson had foreseen the need for change in direction; Grant had started the change that moved U.S. policy away from merely shoving Indians out of the way, and went so far as to treat many tribal leaders just short of heads of state. Hayes took it even further through Schurz’s fumigation of the Indian Bureau and Interior Department.

His foreign policy, while a minor aspect of his presidency, was measured and punctuated by his farsighted rejection of the anti-Chinese immigration act. His dealings with Mexico were also just.

It’s also interesting to note that Hayes traveled—a lot. During his four years in the White House, Hayes visited more places of the country than most of the other previous presidents combined. He was also the first sitting president to visit the west coast.

It’s fair to label Rutherford Hayes a somewhat successful president, because he accomplished much of what he set out to do. Hayes’ only policy that can be labeled a failure was his Southern policy; while well intentioned, the president labored under an unpleasant illusion that things were getting better in the South when the opposite was true. The systematic crushing of black freedom in the South—it was systematic and done under the auspices of state authority—didn’t escape Hayes’ notice, but he believed Grant’s solution of federal force to prop up Republican governments was not a solution. Instead, he appealed to Southerners’ better nature and pleaded with them to follow the law. But without threat of reprisal—whatever forms that could have taken—the pleading was useless. In this area, Hayes failed.

Final assessment: Somewhat successful and popular.


Hayes’ presidency is easily overlooked, but fortunately we have some excellent resources. For this study I used The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes by Ari Hoogenboom (1988), of the University of Kansas’ American Presidency series, and Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse (2002), of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The American Presidents series.

A decent one-volume treatment of Hayes’ life is Hoogenboom’s 1995 Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President. (Trefousse wryly notes that his fellow biographer placed Hayes’ soldiering before his government service, which indicates which was better.)

A scathing attack on Hayes and his successors concerning Southern policies is found in The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson by Rayford Whittingham Logan and Eric Foner (1954, reprinted in 1997).

* – I find some of Trefousse’s conclusions about Hayes somewhat unconvincing, especially concerning his depiction of the “restoration” of the good name of the White House following the Grant years. If Grant was so bad for the Republican Party and Hayes was so great, why was there a strong movement afoot to give Grant a third term in 1880—to succeed Hayes? My point is, Trefousse, while elevating the deserving Hayes, overly denigrates Grant.

It is true that Hayes ran a scandal-free administration and Grant’s people, well, they had some problems (see last entry). But Grant was every bit as popular as Hayes, even more so. Trefousse has more than a bit of modern-day historian’s bias against Grant, especially because many things that Grant did or initiated—especially the specie repayment bill—Trefousse gives Hayes full credit for.

Another big problem with Trefousse’s book: he stretches the comparisons between the 1876 and 2000 elections way too far. In the introduction, he states, “As in 2000, the controversy was in part because of a dispute about African-American votes…” Oh, hogwash! Yes, it was true in 1876, as racist Democrats fought to deny blacks the right to vote. But it did not happen in 2000; even the liberal-dominated Civil Rights Commission was forced to admit by its more conservative-leaning members that the charges of “black voter suppression” in Florida 2000 were flat-out bogus. The fictitious charges were trumped by liberals and black “leaders,” so-called, who just could not accept that their guy had lost the electoral vote fair and square.

There was no black voter intimidation in Florida 2000—and liberals conveniently ignore the fact that in the counties most in dispute (e.g., the only counties Al Gore sought a recount in) were run by Democrats, not Republicans. Trefousse was also writing in 2001 (the book was published in 2002) so he paints a happy picture of Democrats rallying to President Bush unlike the Democrats in Hayes’ era. It’s hard to read Trefousse’s words without laughing mirthlessly, because Democrats did not “rally to Bush” in 2001, and their behavior since the Florida recount has gotten steadily worse.

(And please: anyone who wants to argue the Bush was “selected-not-elected” crap had best go elsewhere. Every major media organization did their own recounts by every possible method and all came to the same conclusion: Bush won fair and square. All the U.S. Supreme Court did was put an end to the endless--and unconstitutional--recounting. It didn’t install Bush as president.)

** -- I agree with Hayes on this sentiment. I appreciate what unions have done for this country in the past, but it makes me mad today when union people tell me I can’t—not shouldn’t, but can’t—do business with someone because they don’t hire union. A pox on that. I’ll do business and shop where I please.

*** -- It’s amazing but not surprising that Trefousse and Hoogenboom manage to give only a passing hard money credit to President Grant, without whom Hayes would not have had a good, solid policy to champion! In addition, I realize that there are certain people on the far right conservative spectrum—such as Ron Paul—who advocate that we must only be on the gold standard and that anything else is unconstitutional, echoing in a way an argument of Rutherford Hayes. However, having the U.S. economy based on the gold standard in 1879 is one thing; doing the same in 2007, with an economy several times over the size of 1879’s, is almost too fantastic to contemplate.


1 A chromolithograph of President R. Hayes created by G.F. Gilman.

2 Rutherford and Lucy Hayes on their wedding day, Dec. 30, 1852.

3 Hayes as a general late in the Civil War.

4 This cover sheet for a song composed for the 1876 campaign highlights Hayes’ support for hard currency: The wagon’s large front wheel is inscribed “Hard Money Wheeler Gold Basis,” a rather clumsy way of mentioning both Hayes’ vice presidential candidate and Hayes support for the resumption of specie act. (Most campaign songs were wretched and eminently forgettable.)

5 Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite administes the oath of office to Rutherford B. Hayes on a flag-draped inaugural stand on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol in March 1877.

6 An unflattering cartoon by J.A. Wales features “The ‘Strong’ government 1869-1877,” with a woman as “the Solid South” carrying Ulysses S. Grant in a carpet bag marked “carpet bag and bayonet rule;” and “The ‘Weak’ government 1877-1881,” with Rutherford B. Hayes plowing under the carpet bag and bayonets with a plow marked “Let ‘em alone policy.”

7 Various scenes of “The Great Railroad Strike” in July 1877, as shown in Frank Leslie's Illustrated, Aug. 11, 1877.

8 “District of Columbia – our Indian allies – interview of a delegation of Indian chiefs with President Hayes, in the East Room of the White House.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, Oct. 13, 1877.

9 An Oct. 19, 1881, Puck cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper shows President Hayes kicking Chester A. Arthur out of the New York Customs House.

10 President-elect James Garfield looks at a baby in basket tagged “civil service reform, compliments of R.B. Hayes.” The outgoing president, dressed as a woman, leaves with bag labeled “R.B. Hayes – savings, Fremont, Ohio.” This cartoon, drawn by Frederick Burr Opper, appeared in the Jan. 19, 1881, issue of Puck.

11 President Hayes (Brady-Handy Collection, LOC)

12 Rutherford Hayes flanked by two of his sons.

13 The president in retirement at his beloved Spiegel Grove estate. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center